I was recently asked the question that became the title for this post. Just to set the tone …
“What is it about the .25 ACP, anyway?”
What did they mean? Mainly they were wondering why such a puny cartridge could be considered a self defense round for more than a century. Isn’t the .25 ACP an under powered, under performing example of a waste of time? Too small to hunt even small game like squirrels, and yet it is supposed to be proof against an enraged criminal?
Well, they have a point. The .22 Long Rifle round is considered to be perfect for small game like rabbits, and it is decidedly superior in ballistics when compared to the .25 ACP. Here is the ballistic info for the .25 and the .22 as taken from the Winchester ammunition online page.
.25 ACP = 64 ft/lbs muzzle energy
.22 LR = 80 ft/lbs muzzle energy
(Yes, I notice that the Winchester page lists the .22 Long Rifle round as having more energy and velocity at 100 yards than at the muzzle. Don’t ask me why, I didn’t write it. If I had, it probably would have been right!)
This seems counter intuitive to most as the .25 ACP has a larger and heavier bullet than the .22 Long Rifle. But, larger and heavier aside, it is also moving slower. It doesn’t help matters any that the barrels that are usually used to shoot the .25 ACP are most often rather short.
That is where the great advantage of the round comes in to play. It is so small and under powered that really small guns can be made which employs the round. And by small I mean teensy-tiny, itsy-bitsy, virtually doll sized.
Did I mention the guns are really, really small? Because that is the only actual advantage to this caliber. It is perfect as an emergency arm that can be tucked away in some unobtrusive place, unnoticed and unseen. People who are concerned about carrying guns that are almost impossible to spot call this “deep concealment”, and it is the only advantage small autos chambered for the .25 ACP have over other guns.
Oh, wait, did I say that small size is the ONLY advantage? Because there is another, and that is cost. As long as one is not concerned about durability, a .25 auto can be had pretty cheap. When I was working for the police way back when, these sort of firearms were informally referred to as “pimp guns” by the uniformed officers because it seems that people in that profession always had one when they were arrested.
This is certainly due to their minuscule sticker price. Even if some street level criminal lost the gun when frisked during the arrest, what of it? A brand new, factory fresh gun can be had for a bit more than $100.00 USD today, maybe even less if it was stolen. They could probably replace the loss a few minutes after being released on bail. It is as close to a disposable firearm there is!
So where did the round come from? The .25 ACP was developed by legendary American gun designer John Moses Browning.
I can’t say for sure as to his motivation, but it seems to me that it was a project he undertook just to discover how small he could build a semi-automatic handgun that had similar ballistics to the .22 Long Rifle cartridge. As one can see by glancing at the Winchester data he didn’t really achieve what he was going for, as the .25 ACP is about 20% weaker than the .22 Long Rifle.
Even so, he managed to create something that the public wanted to buy. In Europe, where small under powered guns were always popular, sales were pretty respectable with the introduction of the FN M1905. In the United States, where large caliber revolvers ruled, it took a bit longer before gun manufacturing behemoth Colt took notice. They started marketing almost the exact same design as the Colt 1908 Vest Pocket, and you can read a very good article about the gun right here.
One of the things the author of the linked article touches upon is why the public wanted to buy such a puny, anemic, inadequate gun in such numbers. I think a good part of the appeal was that the gun was seen as science fiction come to life.
Wait, did I say “science fiction“? But autoloading firearms have been around for, like, forever! What is so special about another one, even one so small?
To answer that question we have to go back a bit, back even before the 20th Century got started.
The very first commercially successful automatic pistol is the Borchardt C-93.
Originally offered in 1894 it was an incredible and amazing advance for the day, evoking the Victorian ideals of progress and mechanical technology that could solve any problem. The gun would not look out of place on the hip of a steampunk explorer.
I mentioned that the Borchardt was the first commercially successful automatic handgun, but only a bit more then 3,000 were ever produced. A success, sure, but not a huge success. Most people at the time looked at the C-93 as a fad, something where only early adopters would be spending money. And that was a pretty fair assessment of the gun, actually.
A few years later the German firearms manufacturer Mauser started selling their C96, otherwise known as the Broomhandle Mauser. It is a gun whose outline is instantly recognizable to just about anyone who has even a passing interest in firearm design.
Whereas the Borchardt sold a little more than 3,000 units, Mauser manufactured over one million! Firearm firms in other countries, most notably in Spain and China, made a fair bit of coin churning out uncounted copies of the design. The Borchardt might be seen as a success, the Broomhandle Mauser was a monster hit! All of a sudden, it didn’t seem so outlandish an idea to rely on automatic handguns for defense.
The C96 really didn’t fit well with American ideas of what makes a good handgun, but good old John Moses Browning stepped up with the FN M1900. This was the first production handgun which used a slide.
This was also enormously popular. Production for the gun ceased in the West after a mere 11 years, but about 700,000 were produced in that time.
So the beginning of the 20th Century saw a vast array of automatic handguns hitting the market. New designs, new cartridges, new ways of doing things. The future had arrived like a thunderclap!
Small guns chambered for the .25 ACP were kind of swept along by this enthusiastic tide. Fabrique Nationale first started selling the gun in 1906, before any major military force had made the wholehearted change from revolvers to automatic handguns. People who bought .25’s seemed to be enthralled by the increased firepower that autoloaders had over wheelguns. It didn’t seem to matter if an effective caliber was employed if one could pepper their attacker with multiple shots, and when empty slap a fresh magazine in the gun and keep shooting.
Oddly enough, the French started to issue handguns chambered for the .25 ACP to their police in the years before WWI. Known as the Melior 6.35, it was usually seen in the hands of back country gendarmes where serious shoot outs with dangerous criminals were extremely unlikely.
I don’t have much information on the gun or the manufacturer, but it appeared to be an experiment on the effectiveness of autoloaders in the hands of the police. An experiment which failed, as the police in France were typically issued revolvers until some time after 1990.
Okay, so that is peace time. Did .25 autos play any major role in the world wars? Not exactly, although they were around.
.25’s were extremely popular in the trenches of World War I.
The idea seemed to be that it was perfect if one was captured by the enemy. As the gun was so small that it was unlikely to be found during a casual search, it would be ready at hand when the time came to stage a prison break. So far as I have been able to determine this never actually happened, although I’m sure that someone got shot by a .25 some time during that terrible conflict. After all, soldiers were arming themselves with makeshift clubs they made out of whatever was lying around so they could bash in the head of the enemy when invading a trench.
It just seems incredible that someone, somewhere didn’t try shooting someone with whatever they had at hand. Even if it was a puny, underpowered .25 auto.
The .25 ACP survived pretty much intact through WWI and WWII, filling that unique niche as being the smallest widely available autoloading pistol. People still bought them for defense, and it was probably a Godsend for those who had little money and lived in crime infested neighborhoods. After all, it was a great deal better than nothing at all!
And that is why they are still manufactured and purchased today. It is either because someone needs a really tiny gun, or because someone can’t afford something better.
That would pretty much be it so far as the lowly .25 ACP is concerned, but there is one side note that I should mention. Back in the 1950’s or 1960’s, an Italian named Lercker designed and built a machine pistol chambered for the .25 ACP cartridge.
What is a machine pistol? It is a handgun that shoots like a machine gun. Full auto! BBRRAAPP!!!
(Click pic for animation.)
There isn’t a great deal of information about this gun, except that the Italian police confiscated all of them but for one or two that are in museums. You can find an article about the Lercker at the excellent Forgotten Weapons website. Worth your time to click the link and give it a read.
To wrap this up, one may ask if I ever recommended a .25 auto to one of my students. The answer is that I did not, but I wouldn’t actively try to discourage them if they chose one for defense. As all of my students were extremely poor, I realized that it was the best that a lot of them could do.